Monday night marked the beginning of Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrating the exodus from Egypt. "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt," Jews read each year in the Passover Haggadah, "but God took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Had not the Holy One, Blessed is He, taken our fathers out from Egypt, then we, our children, and our children's children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt."
The Jewish exodus from Egypt remains the signal moment for Western civilization. It marks the first call for freedom, the first movement from the darkness of tyranny to the light of liberty. As such, it has been used by every major political movement in American history. When John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were assigned the task of creating a great seal for the United States, they considered adopting the image of Moses and the Jews standing on the beach of the Red Sea, watching the Egyptians drown. "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God," the seal would have read.
The exodus from Egypt provided the rallying image to black slaves in the antebellum South. "In America, enslaved Africans learned the story of the exodus from Egypt and set their own hearts on a promised land of freedom," President Bush correctly explained in a July 2003 speech.
Martin Luther King Jr. constantly utilized the imagery of Exodus in his quest for racial equality. "Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever," King said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. "The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh's court centuries ago and cried, 'Let my people go.' This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story."
Ronald Reagan cited Exodus as the first incident in a long line of Western resistance to tyranny: "Since the exodus from Egypt, historians have written of those who sacrificed and struggled for freedom: the stand at Thermopylae, the revolt of Spartacus, the storming of the Bastille, the Warsaw uprising in World War II. In the Communist world as well, man's instinctive desire for freedom and self-determination surfaces again and again."
The gradual movement toward freedom is an inspiring testament to the continuing power of the Bible -- but it is not the whole story. The exodus from Egypt was about escaping from the oppressive hand of totalitarianism, but it was also about accepting the responsibility that comes with freedom, the responsibility to do right, to act in accordance with God's will. "Let my people go," Moses demands of Pharaoh, "so that they may celebrate Me in the wilderness."